Walking is a baby's first big, well, step. While those first steps are thrilling, they're also just the beginning -- they set loose a cascade of related skills that continues well into childhood.
"The developmental milestones of the first year are obvious, but the changes that take place during the next couple of years, though often more subtle, are just as amazing to watch," says Alan Greene, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine. They're also just as important to encourage -- and they're fun for you to participate in.
During toddlerhood and into the preschool years, children constantly refine movement, gradually working toward the day when they don't have to concentrate quite so hard on what they're doing.
Odds are your child will master most gross motor skills without any coaching, but you do have to make sure she has the opportunity to practice them. Too many kiddie videos may inadvertently discourage young children from moving around, says Victoria Youcha, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the healthy development of infants and toddlers. "Can't you sit still?" is a common parental refrain during these busy years. But, a host of experts agree, if you make movement a priority for your child from a young age, she'll be more likely to enjoy being active for the rest of her life.
Another reason to run, roll, and climb with him: Many physical skills play a part in cognitive development. "To ride a tricycle, for instance, you have to be able to sit and stay balanced while you rotate your trunk to steer," says Youcha. A few years from now, when your child is in school, he'll have to sit at a desk, center himself on his chair, and write, an effort that requires those same kinds of movement and coordination. Rolling a ball back and forth and playing catch teach turn-taking -- a worthwhile goal on its own, especially for a toddler, but also essential for language acquisition, since conversation depends on taking turns.
Crawling under tables and up stairs, and climbing onto chairs and play structures, is physical and mental exploration, says Youcha. "Your child's trying to figure out where objects are in relation to her and where she is in relation to the rest of the world."
Of course, none of these activities should feel forced, and you don't want to make your child do something he's not interested in doing. The point is to provide opportunities to help him master a skill and develop the confidence it takes to move on to the next, more complicated one.
Here's what you can expect to see your toddler attempt -- and maybe even master -- in the coming months, and some fun ways you can encourage her. (Keep in mind that kids will reach these milestones at different times, so don't worry if your child tries them later rather than sooner.)
Dana Sullivan's last article for PARENTING was "Blowing Raspberries, Pitching Peas," in the November 2001 issue.
Squatting, Pushing and Pulling, and Climbing
Average age: 12 to 18 months, usually right after a child first walks
What it takes: Balance and leg strength
How you can help: Go on a treasure hunt around your neighborhood or a park. Every time your toddler stops to examine something on the ground -- which will probably be very often -- show her how to squat down and pick it up. When you get home, lay the objects down on the floor and talk about what you found. (Then put any small items out of reach.)
Pushing and Pulling
Average age: 12 to 18 months, when walking confidently -- without holding hands out for balance -- is mastered
What it takes: Balance, and the coordination to walk forward while occasionally looking behind to check on things
How you can help: "Once toddlers discover they can pull things, they search for stuff to drag around," says Marilyn Segal, Ph.D., developmental psychologist at the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, and author of the Your Child at Play book series. That's why playthings like that "popcorn" push toy with the balls inside are so popular at this age. For a homemade alternative, you can make a "clonking snake" by stringing empty plastic soda bottles and small boxes on a piece of twine so your toddler can drag it around. (Supervise all play with pull toys, since the string can be a strangulation hazard.)
Average age: 12 to 24 months
What it takes: Balance and strength
How you can help: Make a soft mountain by stacking sofa cushions, quilts, or bed pillows on a carpeted floor and then help your toddler climb up and over them. Or set up an obstacle course using objects of varying heights for her to climb over and into. For instance, line up a laundry basket, a low step stool, and a long length of board that's about six inches wide. Have your child climb into the laundry basket, step onto the stool, and then step down onto the "balance beam" and walk its length while holding your hand.
Running, Climbing Stairs, and Jumping
Average age: 18 to 24 months
What it takes: The ability to walk confidently and a willingness to test limits. Toddlers fall -- a lot -- when they're learning to run, especially when they try to turn corners or stop abruptly.
How you can help: Provide plenty of outdoor playtime. Play tag where falling won't hurt too much, such as in a grassy field or on a sandy beach. Chase your child -- this is one time you can actually encourage him to run away from you! -- and then have him run after you. Or try racing, especially if older kids are willing to play.
Average age: 24 months to 3 years
What it takes: Balance and confidence
How you can help: Take your toddler up and down stairs while holding her hand. Then give her a child-size chair of her own. "Sitting down on a chair and getting up develops leg strength and helps children learn balance," says Dr. Greene. (What's more, with most grown-up-size chairs too high for tots to climb onto, a kid-scale seat she can scramble into on her own -- without being scooped up by an adult -- will provide an ego boost.) "These skills ultimately make walking up stairs and climbing playground structures easier and safer."
Average age: 24 months (jumping off low structures) to 3 years (jumping up from a standing position)
What it takes: The ability to use each side of your body to do something different, a skill known as bilateral coordination
How you can help: Go curb hopping. Holding on to your child's hand, stand next to him on a curb or a low step and say, "One, two, three, jump!" then jump down simultaneously. As he gets braver, he won't want to hold your hand but may want you to stand in front and catch him when he jumps. Jumping from a standing position is more difficult. Start by leap-frogging: getting down into a half-squat position and throwing your arms up while you hop. Gradually he'll figure out how to jump from a standstill.
Balancing, Throwing, and Pedaling
Balancing and Hopping
Average age: 3 years
What it takes: Bilateral coordination
How you can help: Teach ball kicking at around 24 months. Later, play follow-the-leader games, such as Simon Says or The Hokey Pokey. Show your child how to waddle like a duck, leap like a frog, or walk softly like a cat. This silliness will improve coordination and help her learn to move her body in specific ways. She'll probably try standing on one foot before she hops.
Throwing and Catching
Average age: 12 months (throwing) to 3 or 4 years (catching)
What it takes: Bilateral coordination and hand-eye coordination
How you can help: Sit across from your child and roll a large, soft ball back and forth, moving farther apart as you play. At around 24 months, he can practice playing catch by throwing a ball at a wall or a garage door and trying to grab it as it comes back to him. Or he can roll the ball up a small slope and catch it when it rolls back down to him.
Pedaling a Tricycle
Average age: 3 years
What it takes: Bilateral coordination, balance, and strength
How you can help: Put your child on her tricycle (get her her first helmet to encourage good habits later on) and her feet on the pedals, and push her to get her feet turning. Or let her roll down a gentle slope, such as a driveway. (Be sure to keep one hand on her; if you buy a trike with a removable push bar on the back, this will be easier on your back). Once she can pedal without your help, set up an obstacle course, on flat ground, with overturned buckets or cones for her to steer around.
All these activities, once mastered, lead to new skills and accomplishments, and seeing it all take place will make you proud. But your pride will be no match for your child's.